I use the convenient text in Max Wehrli’s Deutsche Lyrik des Mittelalters. Each poem is identified by the number it bears in this collection.
What is happening here?
what’s with these girls so dear?
They want to go loveless, alone,
until hot summer’s flown!
Wehrli tells us that this quatrain, one of the few in German in the 13th century Carmina Burana, is thought to have been performed by women in a round dance. Should this be true, this choral dance of the young reminds the reader of the performative character of much medieval poetry. The fact that one would have assumed the persona to be male further intensifies the playful, teasing, flirtatious tone already underlined by the high temperature. Similar to Herrick’s “Gather ye rosebuds,” the summertime also suggests youth, even life itself. The enthusiastic males are here caricatured by the more cautious females in a sexual tension that pervades human culture and, indeed, manifests in other species as well.
You are mine, I yours,
of that you can be sure.
You’re locked within
under my skin --
the key is lost, my fair!
You’ll have to stay right there!
These twelfth century verses are written at the end of a nun’s highly rhetorical Latin love letter. The reader might reflect on the variety of motives that might have led a medieval lady to take the veil, on the dangers of collapsing all passionate attachment into sexual love, or on the proximity of human and divine affection. Though this question is unanswerable, the poem expresses in the first two lines a reassuring mutuality, only in the next two to employ imagery of domination.
If all the world were mine
from the seacoast to the Rhine,
I’d give it all away
if only England’s queen might lie
in my arms to stay.
Hidden love is fine,
it makes one’s spirit shine.
Love’s what one should chase
And if one’s not love’s servant true
he is no more than base.
This (also from the Carmina Burana) begins with the hyperbolic trope “all the world for love.” The queen is Eleanor of Aquitaine, celebrated for her courts of love and patronage of poets. The use of a pseudonym, though, serves to underline the value of love’s concealment (the adjective in line six is tougen or tugen, defined in Lexer’s lexicon as dunkel, finster, verborgen, geheim, wunderbar). Eleanor’s regal status is a metaphorical compliment. The privacy of love is protected by such use of by-names, though one might assume that in the courtly setting there was considerable speculation about the parties’ identity. At any rate, the intimacy of the relationship can flower when all but the lovers are excluded. The “darkness” and “secrecy” of the boudoir leads to the marvel of love. Love here is the sole criterion for measuring worth: it alone ennobles the lover.
The translations strive to retain the rhyme schemes of the originals, though the rich rhyming of much medieval lyric sounds inappropriate to modern ears. The language is simple, but I won’t detail the inevitable compromises and misstatements entailed by even a modest attempt to reproduce the poems’ original formal patterns.